“‘Youth’ as a social category is essentially a modern, indeed an urban, phenomenon. It is in cities that “young people” turn into “youth” by developing a particular consciousness about being young.” (Bayat, 2007: 64). Iranian society is quite complicated and is changing, so it is very hard for one political actor or for one political faction to grasp the monopoly of the society today. Moreover, discussions on the problems of youth gained a momentum in the 1990s, and especially in 1997 when the reformist Khatami government came to power. It might be clearly observed that urbanization has intensified in Iran for decades as a result of post-revolutionary social changes. Most of the Iranian population now lives in cities, broadening their horizons and voicing their demands for reform. The number of educated people has been increasing remarkably. Perhaps one of the greatest signals of modernist transformation in Iran is the reflection of this educated and urbanized youth. Since the majority of the population is young in Iran, their increasing awareness affects the country directly. On the other hand, many successful policies are products of the Khatami government, but they are altered slowly and silently by the Ahmadinejad government.
It is wrong to compartmentalize all young Iranians as pro-government or anti-government. Yet, majority of the young population rally in tune with reformist projects, hence they are called anti-government people. Accordingly, I will be using this delineation while describing the status of the youth in the following paragraphs. Generally, power holders have a capacity to manipulate and disseminate information and/or “truth”. In this regard, the Ahmadinejad government has tried to do the same thing in state administration. However, most of the youth are challenging their positions, by citing universal values such as human rights in true sense. The present political structure of the state and the conservative approach of the current government cause a conflictual country in Iran and hamper free communication with international civil society through suppressions and restrictions. On the one hand, the internet has become the main tool for civil initiatives, especially the period before the 2009 election, despite the internet surveillance, censorship and control of the state. On the other hand, opponent websites and the media have been censored or closed down by the government(al organs) since the election. Therefore, because of the (il)legal obstacles in Iran, some people struggle to obtain and circulate information outside Iran. Social media and blogs are very helpful to reach this aim.
The Ahmadinejad government’s suppressive attempts toward universities are referred to by the youth as a kind of “cultural revolution” and those attempts are accepted as one of the major threats against Iran’s socio-political progress in the future. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad and other radical Islamists are suspicious and fearful due to university students’ possible uprisings similar to those on the eve of the 1979 Revolution, so they are trying to take all measures not to suffer the same fate the Shah did. The youth were very active in those times and they sacrificed themselves for the Revolution. However, today’s Iranian youth lost their belief in Revolution(ary ideals), particularly due to Ahmadinejad’s policies. For example, the number of executed people (including juvenile offenders) since 2005 (that is, during Ahmadinejad presidency) has been alarmingly high. Due to the increasingly suppressive and violent actions of the Ahmadinejad government, it can be foreseen that this government is rapidly transforming into a totalitarian rule. As a result, significant numbers of the educated youth have left the country, especially because of severe restrictions and governmental tyranny. Similarly, thousands of Iranian people leave the homeland for diasporas in the West.
Before the 1979 Revolution, students (especially in Tehran University) joined the demonstrations to overthrow the Shah regime. Eventually, they had an enormous impact on the dissolution of the monarchy. In the light of this experience, university students have always been a potential threat for the governments in Iran and those governments have always been on alert. In this sense, Ahmadinejad acts very cautiously in following serious ways to hypnotize university students. For example, Friday prayers and sermons are organized in Tehran University, which is the largest and the oldest university in Iran. This is a very striking example, because a university must produce scientific knowledge, rather than serving religious ceremonies and propaganda. Although the contents of the sermons must be totally religious, many political speeches and international messages are given there too. Through this method, the government and the regime aim to keep under control the potential opposition of the university students. Thus, the Conservatives are generally utilizing Islam by preaching “absolute obedience” and threatening the people at one and the same time. Thereby, a notable number of students attend all rituals and pray publicly to expose their “loyalty”. Hence, the Iranian Revolution has become not only a political revolution, but it also has been transformed into a cultural revolution.
Actually, in the early 1980s, the regime started a cultural revolution to transform and control the young generation according to the Islamic-revolutionary principles, through the education system. In addition, since 2005, Ahmadinejad government has continued to employ this strategy perhaps more violently. Hence, this new version of the cultural revolution became one of the reasons for the youth to leave the country. Brain drain among Iranian youth has been enormous especially since the election of Ahmadinejad as the President. They have been immigrating to Europe or the United States. In particular, university students have an opportunity for a more scientific education and a chance for modernization in Western countries. This brain drain is part of their opposition to Ahmadinejad, as a result of which they can freely engage in more activities and organizations abroad, since they cannot do the same things in Iran due to prohibitions and harsh punishments. Older Iranians are more desperate about the current situation and future prospect. They mostly fear for their belongings and the security of their families, since Iranian security forces’ past actions set deterrent examples for the society. Hence, there is enthusiasm of the youth, but not enough support or help from the middle-aged people for a counter-revolution.
According to Bayat (2007: 66), student activism of the late 1990s transformed itself into a post-Islamist movement; thus those students have been showing their ideology differently from 1979 youth. In other words, beyond the separation of the phases, there is an obvious separation of the way of Islam: “[the students] reflected their triple identities of being young, schooled, and increasingly female, had come a long way to become the backbone of the post-Islamist reform movement”. Bayat added that it aims to achieve to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom as an “alternative modernity” by emphasizing rights instead of duties. Moreover, “people are acutely aware of the contrast between restrictions on their lives and the freedoms in many countries” (Keddie, 2003: 292). In this case, for Bayat (2007: 49), post-Islamism heralded a new political and social vision and it was a response to disenchantment of people about the Islamic Revolution’s deficits and discrepancies. The belief or trust of Iranians in the promises of the Revolution diminished dramatically due to the Iran-Iraq war’s cost, economic deprivations, international isolation, corruption, and socio-political policies. Then, the post-Islamist development was launched particularly in urban spaces, firstly in Tehran.
Today, revolutionary promises are neither attractive nor persuasive for many Iranians. The masses desire a fundamental change toward a more democratic life. This struggle is a corollary of both internal dynamics and external influences. Globalized societies and the states influence each other, including the human rights issue. People’s awareness and inter-connectedness are emerging in a borderless and distantless world, despite obstacles or policies of states, and Iranians are one of those societies. Although the political struggle was more impressive in the early years of the Republic, the contemporary struggle is more for freedom and rights than politics. The various groups in Iran gather under this umbrella irrespective of religious, ethnic or gender differences. While Ahmadinejad accuses the West for forcing Iranians to westernize, many young Iranians prefer to consume globalized products, and tend to feel like modern Western youth. Most importantly, together with Iranians’ increasing awareness of globalization, there is a rise of consciousness, skepticism and criticism regarding the regime. Since, “in the sphere of culture and behavior, the regime has often tried to impose its image of an Islamic society” (Keddie, 2003: 290). In spite of being accused as involved in Western conspiracy, the youth have questioned the politicization of Islam, discussed the separation of Islam from politics and demanded the reinterpretation of Islam. These issues are pronounced in both public and private life.
As a consequence of the plan to increase the population in the early postrevolutionary years, Iran’s population today consist mainly of young people who form a crucial social force with a political potential for the factions in general and for electoral processes in particular. Iranian youth (who grew up with Rafsanjani’s moderate practices), are remarkably different from their parents, demanding more freedom, more employment, and more modernization as the new educated generation of the country. Crucial enough, this youth do not share the painful memories of either the Revolution or the formation of the new regime. That is, Iranian youth are prone to freedom without a revolutionary past or memory, whilst their reformist parents, or one generation older Reformists, are prone to freedom with their revolutionary traditions and values. Nevertheless, we should avoid categorizing all Iranian youth as the Reformists. In contemporary Iran, although the majority of young people are reform adherents, some people think and act conservatively. Khosrokhavar (2002: 9) called attention to the relationship between the level of education and the level of consciousness: “College students are more concerned with denying the conservatives the right to monopolize politics in the name of Islam”.
Despite the presence of some conservative young people, it is clearly observed that the alienation of millions of Iranian youth toward the regime has been deepening year by year. However, their organizational initiatives are not sufficient, although the feminist position is powerful. Khosrokhavar and Roy (2000: 124) showed that, first of all, the youth live in a world of taboos in many ways (standing together of the girls and boys, “light” clothing, restricted entertainment, censorship, the separation of women and men in indoor and outdoor activities and so forth). In this regard, one of the very interesting rules might be pointed out as an example. Under the current radical Islamist government, state officials do not allow couples to have conversations at cafés if there are candles on the table. This is because candles are seen as a stimulant agent between the sexes. Similarly, the current government banned the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, including shopping and advertising for it. “The popularity of Valentine’s Day testified to the widespread practice of “forbidden love” and relationships” (Bayat, 2007:60). Most importantly, the new generation wants to make the decision themselves about their pleasures and entertainment. Young women want to have the same rights as men, and demand to be accepted as free and equal. But some young people feel insecure due to the Ahmadinejad government, the actions of its (in)direct forces toward them and their families; so some of them remain passive or silent.
Khosrokhavar and Roy (2000: 116) highlighted that the life of Iranian people was divided into two diverse rhythms: private life and public life. Private life is relatively free and Iranian people do not live under totalitarian rules. Although Sharia brought certain rules, it gave a margin for the private life in the houses. For instance, millions of young Iranians use alcohol and/or drugs in their private lives, mostly in house parties, without showing them in the public. Again, there are some smuggling activities in Iran, which stem from several legal restrictions and impositions. Restrictions apply to technological products such as cell phones, satellite devices while such goods as cosmetics, alcohol and guns are forbidden. Furthermore, music and entertainment are important elements of the daily life of the Iranian youth to feel like a part of modernization in the privacy of their homes secretly. “Surveillance did not deter their pursuit of Western classical music, or their smuggling of cassettes and music videos by exiled Iranian singers” (Bayat, 2007: 60).
There is an intense involvement of youth in such new technological instruments as satellite or the internet and in forbidden genres of music. The internet is used not only for flirting or chatting, but also for researching. The youth tend to change their lifestyles against the formal ideology. Furthermore, they pursue some activities (which are forbidden in the public sphere) in private areas, such as dating in house parties. Thus, they live according to their own desires as much as possible, but in limited time and space. Their areas of freedom usually become their homes. If they can afford and get permit, they travel and go to several countries to enrich their social lives, even temporarily. Thus, they have opportunities to engage in cultural activities and have relationships freely without suffering from sexual segregation. There is a widespread desire among Iranian youth to live in European countries. Therefore, during Friday sermons, accelerating demands of the youth are regarded as the consequence of cultural contamination. On the other hand, the slogans that motivated the young generation on the eve of the Revolution are inadequate to meet the needs of young generation today. Also, current cultural policies are neither compatible with nor match their needs or requirements. Therefore, most young people are unsatisfied deep inside, but satisfied on the outside.
“At the universities, the supreme leader’s representatives may intervene in the contents of courses taught and control the composition of the students matriculated”(Rakel, 2009: 35). Also, “the offices of the representatives of the Leader of the Revolution in the universities, which were created in 1983, safeguard the Islamization of higher education in Iran” (Moslem, 2002: 28). These clearly show that the regime has taken measures against the anti-Islamic or deviationist activities of the youth since the early years after the Revolution. Moreover, according to a report by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, there is a project of the Ahmadinejad government which is giving students stars to certify or expose their adverse political and religious beliefs against the dominant order. In other words, the government is employing a blacklisting mechanism by marking dissident students by stars. Every star represents an additional indication of opposition to the Islamic regime, so “starred students” are barred from higher education. It is carried out by a few Ministries in Iran and it does not only block the education of minority or defiant people, but it also badly affects their social relations. What is more, this method violates the principles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which were ratified by Iran:
Soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2005, the term “starred students” entered Iranian discourse on higher education. Starring became synonymous with a mechanism for discrimination against, and exclusion of, students from higher education based solely on their political beliefs, the exercise of their freedom of expression, and in the case of Baha’i students, their religious beliefs. The starring process constitutes a systematic violation of the rights to expression, assembly, and conscience. It represents a form of religious persecution, and a serious breach of the right to education (ICHRI, 2010: n.p.).
Researches carried out by the daily Hürriyet in Iran (Mengü, 2010) point out that the regime tries to continue the culture of mourning, instead of the pleasure of the youth; because, the feeling of mourning may hamper “dangerous” desires. The journalists observed that the continuous mourning decreased even the smiles of the people, Iranians do not smile in general and some of them attend courses to learn smile. Bayat (2007: 51) approached the issue from another angle: “Black and gray, reflected most spectacularly in women’s veils and men’s facial hair, dominated the urban visual scene, mirroring an aspect of Islamists’ draconian control of body, color, and taste”. Also, the consumption of drugs is extensive among Iranian youth, due to the fact that alcohol is forbidden. “Drug is spread primarily among intravenous drug users, especially in jail.” (Keddie, 2003: 289). Despite several bans, high drug consumption has resulted in 4 million addicts (Mengü, 2010). In this vein, the youth is inclined to use drugs to relax and avoid all irritating factors of the regime and administration. They often use drugs in house parties or parks together with as much alcohol as possible, secretly. “Drug use is especially widespread among young people and is tied to the overall cynicism found among many who are not poor.” (ibid., p. 289).
“Members of the post revolution generation perceive the new political order as an antiyouth regime that is suspicious of all the desires they cherish.” (Khosrokhavar, 2002: 8). On the other hand, as Vassaf indicated (2011: n.p.) the master-apprentice relationship between the generations, whereby the youth learn from the elders, came to an end. First time ever, the elders are now learning new technologies from the youth. For the author, the youth are now moving on the “New Silk Road” through the internet, leaving their faith behind. It might be claimed that today’s Iranian youth do not want a new revolution. Instead, they prefer reformist improvements in line with modernization. As Khosrokhavar (2002: 9) pointed out, they “ask for gradual change toward a more open society instead of seeking radical change in the name of a holistic utopia”. He described this new generation as realistic, and the youth of the 1970s as idealistic.
In this article, I attempted to summarize the story of the youth after the Revolution, their current situation, their grievances and demands. Beyond these statements, it is also necessary to cover their factional direction and their role in the elite struggle. Although both conservative and reformist cliques try to attract young voters as much as possible, today’s youth generally prefer a reformist government, support a reformist rhetoric and join reformist propaganda or uprisings. Because, they understand that conservative governments will not meet young Iranians’ demands adequately. Hence, the youth has to elect a faction for their future. Particularly, the reformist Green Movement has addressed their expectations since the 2009 presidential campaign. In response, Iranian young people have followed this movement’s discourses and actions before and after that election. Moreover, the youth make up a crucial population as (potential) voters for new presidents or parliaments, so they hold an important power not only socially, but also politically. It seems that the majority of young people will continue to vote for the reformist faction in the following elections. On the other hand, as a part of Iranian youth, perhaps the most disadvantaged (reformist) group of this new generation is young women in Iran.
Most of the Iranian students were very eager for the reformist movement until Khatami government but after two terms of his presidency, they became disappointed and desperate about their dreams, and some of them gave up supporting the Reformists as ambitiously as they did in the past. Yet, before and after the last presidential election, they have continued to be active in reformist demonstrations (especially for Mousavi’s Green Movement), but it seems that their numbers and enthusiasm have decreased compared to the 1997 presidential election. Nevertheless, there is a belief in the right to question and criticize the state, among anti-Ahmadinejad university students. The youth does not want to be locked in the formal model imposed by the current government, and they look for more room to breathe. Hence, they try to benefit from every channel for change and their greatest hope for change seems to be the Green Movement. In this movement, the youth and the prominent reformist actors care cooperating against the Ahmadinejad government and the Supreme Leader. For Mir-Hosseini (2001: 8-11), the Reformists, especially female Reformists, have questioned the patriarchal politics of the Islamic Republic and the Islamic “legitimacy” of gender inequality. Mir-Hosseini found a relationship between the Reformists and young Iranians, and said that 60 % of the population is under 25 in Iran. These young people mostly nurture antagonism toward the regime and this is the main force behind the reform movement according to the author. Therefore, it is very rational to pursue the road of reformism and the Green Movement, because reformist promises are prone to protect or improve conditions of the youth and women in every field of life.
The rising demand for reforms by the Iranian population has shifted the discussion of reform from within elite circles, to more secular intellectuals and activists in nongovernmental organizations and universities… This development in the political discourse distinguishes itself from the earlier discourse in that the new secular thinkers no longer aim to protect Islamic identity in politics and believe that an ideal form of government does not necessarily have to be based on Islam (Rakel, 2009: 46).
One of the reasons behind this movement is that “[m]any of the nongovernmental reformers, particularly among the youth, have lost faith in Khatami and other governmental reformers and think only a popular movement can bring results” (Keddie, 2003: 282). In this case, the Green Movement, as a popular movement, has criticized some prohibitions such as the one on tight or brightly-colored clothes, homosexuality and homosexual relationship, un-Islamic hairstyles or Western haircuts, tattoos, cosmetics, un-Islamic music, dancing, songs or books with erotically suggestive words, alcohol, pork, pets, YouTube, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Barbie dolls , Da Vinci Code (and this kind of books), Harry Potter, Batman, some departments in the universities, some opponent blogs or newspapers, mix gender existence in the public realm, several (un)official obstacles toward women and minorities, and so forth. On the contrary, the Greens’ popular demands are mainly free and democratic elections, the release of political prisoners, the freedom of the press, end to censorship, no more militarization of the country, and justice among people. Finally, it is necessary to state in the end of the article that the permanent achievement of the Greens or young Reformists depends on a comprehensive and powerful process. Without incorporating various groups under the same umbrella, constructing the balance of supply-demand in favor of the Greens (and the youth) is impossible.
– Bayat, A. (2007). Making Islam Democratic Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, California: Stanford University Press.
– International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. (2010). “Punishing Stars Systematic Discrimination and Exclusion in Iranian Higher Education,”
– Keddie, N. R. (2003). Modern Iran Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
– Khosrokhavar, F. (2002). “Postrevolutionary Iran and the New Social Movements,” In Eric Hooglund (Eds.), Twenty Years of Islamic Revolution Political and Social Transition in Iran since 1979 (pp.3-18). New York: Syracuse University Press.
– Khosrokhavar, F. and Roy, O. (2000). İran: Bir Devrimin Tükenişi (İ. Yerguz, Trans.), İstanbul: Metis Yayınları.
– Mengü, N. (2010). “Şaşırtan İran,” Hürriyet, Yazı Dizisi, August 01-04, 2010.
– Mir-Hosseini, Z. (2001). “The Rise and Fall of Fa’ezeh Hashemi: Women in Iranian Elections,” Middle East Report, 218, pp. 8-11.
– Moslem, M. (2002). “The State and Factional Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” In Eric Hooglund (Eds.), Twenty Years of Islamic Revolution Political and Social Transition in Iran since 1979 (pp. 19-35). New York: Syracuse University Press.
– Rakel, E. P. (2009). Power, Islam, and Political Elite in Iran, A Study on the Iranian Political Elite from Khomeini to Ahmadinejad, Leiden Boston: Brill.
– Vassaf, G. (2011). “Devrim, Şiddet ve İnternet,” Radikal.